The first book I decided to review for the Reading Ireland Month (hosted by Cathy746books and The Fluff Is Raging) is none other than W.B. Yeats’ play Cathleen Ni Houlihan. Written in 1902 and performed in April of the same year in Dublin, it is a play of great symbolic and historic significance for Ireland and the turbulent period it refers to.
Cathleen Ni Houlihan is set in an Irish village during the Rebellion of 1798 against the British and it follows a critical moment in the lives of a peasant family, whose eldest son, Michael, is soon to get married. The play opens with his parents discussing about the dowry his son is to receive from the bride’s family and they seem to be rather concerned about their financial state, indicating their (and especially the mother’s) preoccupation with material things more than anything else. While having this conversation, sounds of war and battle reach their ears, but they pay no particular attention to them, with the exception of a brief comment.
All of a sudden, an old and rather mysterious woman appears at their door asking for help. However, it is not food or money that she seeks but the men’s help, and especially Michael’s, to get her house back. The family doesn’t seem to recognise the woman, since her manner of speaking is more confusing rather than helpful. The old woman proves to be none other than Cathleen Ni Houlihan, a mythological figure in Irish folklore who is said to represent Ireland herself.
Yeats is well known for his fascination by folklore and mythology and his deeply rooted nationalism as well. Therefore, it is no surprise that he chose to write a play about such an important figure of the Irish tradition. Cathleen Ni Houlihan has appeared in quite a few literary works and pieces of art as a symbol for Ireland and she is always depicted as a woman trying to recruit men who are willing to fight for her liberty. Many have said that this play is political and propagandistic, but Yeats himself has denied any such intentions while writing and producing it. As he had stated once, he prefered distinguishing between politics and art and didn’t want to let one interfere with the other in such a manner as to be considered a propaganda of sorts.
Yeats co-wrote this play with Lady Gregory. In a letter he wrote to her in 1903 he wrote of the play:
“One night I had a dream almost as distinct as a vision, of a cottage where there was well-being and firelight and talk of marriage, and into the midst of that cottage there came an old woman in a long cloak. She was Ireland herself, that Cathleen ni Houlihan for whom so many songs have been sung and about whom so many stories have been told and for whose sake so many have gone to their death. I thought if I could write this out as a little play I could make others see my dream as I had seen it, but I could not get down out of that high window of dramatic verse, and in spite of all you had done for me I had not the country speech. One has to live among the people, like you…”
Cathleen Ni Houlihan is a short, one-act play full of symbolism. I think it depicts quite accurately what the lives of the people belonging to the lower classes were like in the Irish villages at the time of the rebellion. It tackles important themes, such as duty, family, finance and, of course, nationalistic pride, an element which permeats this play. Yeats believed in the purity of the Irish people, in the image of the honest and intellectual peasant, who cared more about abstract things like duty towards the country rather than about material things like money. This is why, through this play, Yeats also manages to pass his critique on the so-called ‘corruption’ of the Irish purity as he perceived it.
It is undoubtedly an enjoyable play that evokes some thoughts while reading it and makes you think about what is morally right or wrong. I believe it is a play of great importance for the Irish literary culture, since it contains so many elements and information about it. I would like to also watch it one day, so as to get a full picture of it.